House Approves $1 Million For ‘Food Desert’ Help

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Legislation encouraging vendors to make local fruits and vegetables more available in “food deserts” moved through the House and on to the Senate on Friday.

The measure, which passed 108-25, would offer $1 million yearly to small businesses that want to sell Maryland-grown produce in areas lacking grocery stores.

Some Republicans objected that it wouldn’t go far enough in persuading people to buy produce. They said they hope to work with senators to modify the bill to include more education programs and accountability for grant recipients.

Nonprofit organizations and small businesses, including corner markets and “micro-enterprises” with fewer than six employees, would be eligible for the grants.

Erlene Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the legislation is supposed to encourage creative business models. Applicants could sell healthful foods other than produce as long as they were made in Maryland.

The federal government estimates that more than 70 census tracts in Maryland qualify as food deserts, including 25 in Prince George’s County.

A food desert is defined as a low-income census tract where at least 500 people or a third of the population has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. In an urban area, this means living at least a mile from such a store; in a rural area, at least 10 miles.

According to this bill, the secretary of Housing and Community Development would designate Maryland’s food deserts based on recommendations from a new committee.

When the subject came up in a House session Friday morning, Minority Leader Nic Kipke announced that he supported the bill’s purpose but was voting against it for practical concerns.

He cited a recent study by Penn State University showing that a brand-new supermarket in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood apparently didn’t change the rate of fruit and vegetable consumption.

By contrast, a project at the University of California has started healthful cooking classes in corner stores, in addition to nutrition classes at local schools and a proliferation of nutrition ads.

“They’re seeing the demand skyrocket for the fruits and vegetables,” Kipke said, noting that he’d like to see Maryland move in the same direction.

But Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City Democrat, said similar projects are already running throughout the state and this bill was designed to dovetail with them.  Washington also said the Penn State study failed to account for food stamp cuts that occurred during the testing period.

Numerous states and cities have similar programs. Many give subsidies to convenience stores if they’ll sell and promote fresh produce. Some also subsidize farmers markets.

New York has given special permits to street vendors who can sell raw fruits and vegetables in designated food deserts only. The city has touted the low startup costs of this model, compared with those of opening a store.

Gov. Martin O’Malley sponsored the bill by request from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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